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Perhaps readers of this blog may be unaware that those of us who teach at Calvin (now University) must sign “The Big Black Book.” Let me explain. This is a good story.

The book is held, I believe, in the provost’s office now, though in my time it was in the keep of the college president, who guarded it with sincerity, even zeal. The book contains the three documents that theologically define the Christian Reformed Church: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of the Synod of Dort.

In the next section of the big book is a place for faculty members to sign their names, in testimony that they agree with the three documents. If you agree, you just sign your name. If you have some objections, there is a place for you to write out those concerns.

I got the call from the president’s office to come up to sign during my first year at Calvin, the academic year 1969-70. The President, Dr. William Spoelhof, was kindly and welcoming as I came into his office. Since I was not CRC in my background, nor a graduate of Calvin, he didn’t know precisely what he was going to get in this meeting. He pointed out the contents of the book, and showed, with I think some pride, the various and sometimes lengthy pages in which faculty people had written out, in their own hand, their objections. He said that there would be plenty of room for objections if I was so inclined. I glanced over the writings and saw many people objecting to things like infant baptism and limited atonement.

I believe I surprised him when I said that I was prepared to sign without objection. Really? No concerns or caveats? No, I said. He handed me the pen I was to use. He asked again if I was sure.

I said that I was glad to give my assent to these documents because I understood that I was, in effect, an employee of the CRC, and thus had to agree with its defining documents – “the form of subscription” — as had all others who serve the church.

My next comment seemed to surprise even more. I said I wanted it understood that in giving my assent here, I was not giving my dissent elsewhere. His face grew seriously, even gravely, concerned. What did I mean about assent and dissent? I said that in agreeing these documents to be “true” I was not saying that others were “untrue.” So, for example, if on this table one found, say, The Westminster Confession I would sign that too. I further said I would also sign the (Lutheran) Augsburg Confession and, for that matter, the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Dr. Spoelhof countered, they don’t fully agree with each other. I said that it would be for theologians to argue about, not a young historian beginning his career at Calvin. For my part, an attitude of openness was crucial. I insisted that each of the historic documents mentioned above could inform the other and we’d all be the better for it, in a generous world in which we listened to and learned from other Protestant confessions; in short, just what a liberal arts education stood for, or so I believed.

Dr. Spoelhof apparently didn’t want to have that discussion. He asked me directly if I was indeed prepared to sign without objection. Before I could say anything else, he handed me the pen and said: “sign here.” I did. We shook hands, and the subject never came up again in our years of harmoniously working together.

In my teaching and writing, I continued with a generous attitude to other Christian traditions, believing, as I told the president back then, that we are all better off in open dialogue with fellow Christians. So, do I believe that the CRC’s “Three Forms of Unity” are true? Sure I do. I signed the book, didn’t I?

If anyone reading this ever gets to see this big black book in the Provost’s Office, you can ask to see the page for 1969, with my signature put there some fifty-three years ago, in which I signed without objection. But now you know the rest of the story.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Ronald Wells

Ronald Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Among his many published works is The Best of the Reformed Journal, which he co-edited with James Bratt. He is a layman in the Episcopal Church.

6 Comments

  • What a wonderful story. Thank you for that.

    I wish that Hope had a similar custom.

  • Joel Carpenter says:

    Many thanks, Ron. Your story summons up rich memories for me. I was a keeper of the book as provost from 1996 to 2006, and what I recall most about my conversations with entering faculty when it was time for them to subscribe to the confessions was how seriously they took it. By that point in time, Calvin profs were coming from a variety of Christian traditions, not by any means “birthright” Reformed, and it was very important for them to know that by signing, they were saying that these confessions faithfully stated basic Christian doctrine and faithfully reflected the teaching of Scripture. They did not have to give up what was precious to them in growing up Lutheran, or Methodist, or in a Bible Church, to sign on. If they had not heard it, I told them the story of the ecumenically Protestant origins and intent of the Heidelberg Catechism, co-authored by Reformed and Lutheran scholars. And I told them that we hoped that being confessionally Reformed was a conversation starter in dialogue with other Christians, and non-Christians, not a conversation ender. At the same tine, they were signing on as a member of a confessional community, which did not mean that there was nothing to talk about, or disagree about. It meant, as a matter of fact, that their debates and conversations could go much deeper because they did not have to settle differences about first principles. From the outside, a confessional university could look like a closed shop, but on the inside, the conversation was lively and animated, and rich. It was able to go deeper, faster. It has been a precious gift to Calvin, and I pray that it will not be injured by the current debate over what constitutes a confessional issue.

  • Edward Wierenga says:

    Thanks, Ron, for your account of the Big Black Book and the role of the three forms of unity. I would add one detail about the book. (I had to sign it in 1975 for a one-year visiting appointment). The first third of it was in Dutch, with elegant handwriting in the signatures. Then at one point, there was a typed English translation of what one was committing to pasted into the book. We were also asked to sign a loyalty oath to the Constitution of the state of Michigan. I didn’t do that. President Spoelhof called me in to his office and said that I had neglected to sign that second form. I said that that I had never read the Constitution of the state of Michigan and didn’t know whether I was loyal to it. He told me that he hadn’t read it, either, but that some Calvin grads had been on the committee that wrote it, so he was sure that it was pretty good. I signed.

  • George Monsma, Jr. says:

    I think the President’s secretary just asked me to sign the “Big Black Book” when I joined the Calvin faculty in 1969. I was also asked to sign a “loyalty oath” (anti-communist oath”) but declined b/c I had heard the courts had declared that it couldn’t be required of employees of private organizations, and I didn’t like the idea of requiring such oaths, even though there was no reason I couldn’t sign. Some years later President Spoelhof called me into his office and asked me to sign it b/c some organization was trying to end state support for private colleges and he was afraid they might use the fact that some faculty hadn’t signed the oath in that effort. So I signed as a favor to him.

    My wife had a different experience with the “Big Black Book”. Apparently no one had asked her to sign it when she was hired, and later as she was passing the President’s office his secretary called her in and said that she hadn’t signed “the book” yet, and could she do it. All she saw was a page with a lot of signatures, and she signed, thinking it was just a record of faculty members. Only later did she discover she had signed the Form of Subscription.

  • Jon Pott says:

    Thanks, Ron. A nice little historical irony occurring to me is that in the 70s and 80s we younger members of the old RJ were, against the deep worries of Harry Boer and other founders, bent on putting more distance between the magazine and the denominational affairs of the CRC and the RCA, and of late the two denominations have dominated RJ reader interest! And this, to add an irony, at a time when denominational interest seems to be in decline generally. The wheel does turn!

    Jon Pott

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